Judaism can provide the answer to our current crisis of leadership

We are definitely in need of good leadership. So what went wrong?

Albert Einstein (photo credit: PIXABAY)
Albert Einstein
(photo credit: PIXABAY)
Over the recent holiday I was sitting in the sukkah and pondering the meaning of the Ushpizin, the unusual custom in which we invite Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Aaron, Joseph and David to our sukkah. Aside from the pressure this adds to my need to embellish the meal for such illustrious guests, I was confused as to why we actually do this. Then I had an epiphany.
Doesn’t the Talmud say that the Temple’s altar stood on land belonging to the tribe of Benjamin giving it the status of being an ushpizkhan of the Divine presence? (Zevahim 53b) This of course means that Benjamin merited to host the Divine presence in the Temple.
Then I took out the Aramaic dictionary and found that Ushpizin means “hosts,” not guests. So we are actually inviting the hosts of each day to our sukkah.
Why are they the hosts? These seven shepherds (ro’im) are our iconic leaders of old, the founding fathers of our nation. Each one inspired us in his unique way. So as the year begins, we dedicate each day of Sukkot to ponder their instructions and life stories.
We are definitely in need of good leadership. I hear this from many people, regardless of their political bent. So what went wrong?
In Israel we have been conditioned to believe that leadership – true leadership, the one that can influence life and affect change – can only come from the political arena. This has been so ingrained in our thinking that every political analyst or interviewer seems to secretly covet some political position. We are probably the only democracy in which this happens. Our generals all want to jump into the political swimming pool, whether they possess talents in this field or not.
Growing up in Canada, I never met anyone who actually wanted to be a member of parliament. Personally, I doubt whether the political arena can ever produce true leadership. After all, it’s not for nothing that a political party in Hebrew is called a miflaga, which means “division,” since all political parties are divisive.
“Vote for me for salvation since the opposition will sell you to the wolves,” seems to be a familiar message. How can such a leader – even if they won an election (as a minority government of course) and coerced some other agenda-seeking parties to join for opportunistic reasons – bring unity to a now-divided people? In fact, it is the parties themselves that perpetuate the divisions in order to reap political gain.
A nation of tribes
The State of Israel is composed of many tribes. It is the only place in the world where Jews from across the globe have come together. This diversity enriches Israeli life with vigor, but it also presents challenges. Did you notice how many parties ran for Knesset seats (29 last election) and how many actually got in (10)? I think this is unprecedented. You could counter and say we need this. After all, our tribes include, among others, secular socialists, neo-liberals, secular capitalists, anti-nationalists and nationalists, traditional Jews, Modern religious Jews, haredim (hassidim, Mitnagdim and Sefardim), Muslims, Christians,  and undefined (this is actually the name of a status assigned by the Interior Ministry).
In the early years of the state, the impact of this was minimized by the fact that immigrants predominantly were fleeing the countries they came from. They were de facto refugees. So there was an unspoken trade-off: We give you the status of a free citizen in a country where Jews are not persecuted in exchange for you doing what you are told, whether it be the army, high taxes, or whatever else we throw at you.
This worked for about 30 years, especially in light of security issues that just would not go away (and still haven’t). That’s why, in my opinion, the State of Israel never encouraged immigration from Western countries, because it had no idea what to do with Jews who were not refugees.
As the years rolled on, the tribes intermingled, but they still exist and have come of age. However, they really don’t want to be told by the government what to do. It is also clear that no politician will succeed in uniting more that his or her own camp. So where does leadership come from?
A new way of thinking about leadership
Leadership comes from the non-political camp. The people who really inspire us are educators, entrepreneurs, thinkers, movers, some rabbis, some professors; people with inspiring life stories and accomplishments. These are the people who influence us. Only the very young think that a politician has all the answers. In a normal democracy, a politician is someone we hope is minimally corrupt and maximally out of our lives. With the major issues facing Israel since its inception, this has never been possible, but we crave that other type of leadership: the one with no other agenda except the good of the people.
The truth is that the founding fathers of the state thought this way. They created the position of president and first nominated Albert Einstein, a scientist with no political ties. The second nominee was Chaim Weizmann, a scientist with pre-state Zionist affiliations. We had other presidents who were appointed due their stature and contributions to Israeli society, rather than for their political affiliations. Things changed, however, and the presidency became a way of awarding politicians approaching retirement: Ezer Weizman, Moshe Katsav, Shimon Peres, and even our current president, Reuven Rivlin. That does not mean that none of them succeeded, but party affiliation is a real impediment to success in leadership.
Once upon a time the president was just a figurehead who talked to foreign leaders so retired politicians were a natural fit. Today, however, we need a president whose  character and contribution to society can inspire us; someone who can communicate with the various groups in Israel; someone who can bring out the best from each tribe and create unity in times of strife and struggle. This, by definition, cannot be achieved by a life-long politician who built a career on factionalism.
Let the Knesset present names, but let the people vote for a president when they vote for the Knesset. This is our only chance of finding a real mediator who will know the meaning of their job.
There is another position that should also be filled by someone whose ethical and spiritual character can inspire and educate us: the position of chief rabbi. The early chief rabbis understood the importance of the office and title: Rabbis Abraham Isaac Kook, Yitzhak HaLevi Herzog and Ben-Zion Meir Hai Uziel saw their role as building bridges between the tribes.
Two things happened to change this.
First was that the chief rabbi was eventually seen as a leader in Jewish law for the religious communities. Since most people who lead a religious life already have a rabbi to whom they can turn for such insights, that role is generally unneeded.
Second, religious politicians turned the selection of chief rabbi into an inter-party power struggle. I am not certain that the chief rabbis must be the head of the rabbinical court, but even if one does, the other does not. The Maharal of Prague comments on the Mishna in Pirkei Avot 1,6, “Make for yourself a rabbi,” that if you find someone who inspires you to be a better Jew and a better human being, that is what a rabbi is supposed to be. Make him your rabbi, even if he does not have the appropriate degrees or official credentials.
The chief rabbi should be someone who can speak to members of all the tribes of Israel, not just the ones who belong to the tribe in which he grew up. He must be someone who understands “the other,” whether religious or secular, Jewish or not; someone who inspires by their very character; someone who is non-judgmental, and a student of Aaron who loves peace and pursues it.
If we could just reclaim these two positions from the claws of the politicians, then even in hard times, with economic uncertainties, health worries and factionalism, their voice, their reason and their empathy would be there to calm us and help us prevail as a nation.
The writer, a rabbi, is a lecturer in Jewish studies at Bar-Ilan University and a research fellow at Ariel University.